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In Ominous Development, US Navy Makes Historic Drone Launch

Experts say aircraft carrier capability will widely expand range and use of pilot-less bombers

Jon Queally, staff writer

As the US Navy celebrated a breakthrough achievement on Tuesday after successfully launching a jet-propelled drone from the deck of the USS George HW Bush, those concerned about the increasing proliferation of US drones and the deadly programs fueled by the remotely piloted aircraft expressed ominous dread.

It was the first time the US military has been able to launch one of its drones from an aircraft carrier and also a test flight for one of the new Navy's powerful, long-range and stealth version of a drone, the X-47B, which was developed by Northrop Grumman at a price of $1.4 billion.

"As our access to overseas ports, forward operating locations and airspace is diminished around the world, the value of the aircraft carrier and the air wing becomes more and more important," said Rear Adm. Ted Branch, commander of Naval Air Forces Atlantic. "So today is history."

And Mark Gunzinger, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told Reuters the launch of the long-range, stealth aircraft was "a great story." He said, "It's a milestone and a step forward for unmanned, carrier-based aviation. But I think the real story is what's next. How do we operationalize this capability?"

But those increasingly worried about the current harm being done by US drones and the future implications of the X-47B, expressed different thoughts. As the New York Daily News points out, "Critics of drone programs have argued that the X-47B launch marks a worrying landmark of developing fully autonomous machines."

As Steve Goose, director of the arms division at Human Rights Watch, told the Washington Post: "We’re saying you must have meaningful human control over key battlefield decisions of who lives and who dies. That should not be left up to the weapons system itself.”

Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch and other campaigners launched a global campaign designed to raise the serious problems created by remotely-controlled and semi-autonomous "killer robots." Though a whole host of technologies fill that category the rise of the US drone has become the symbol of their concern.

And as Reuters reporting indicates, they have much to be concerned about as the US military continues to expand—and loudly champion—its increasingly powerful capabilities:

Future variants of the drone could probably be designed for full-spectrum broadband stealth, which means it would be hard for radar to locate it, analysts said. That level of stealth would be one of the drone's major defenses.

U.S. drones currently in use in places like Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, like the Predator and Reaper, are not up against any air defenses and are not stealthy aircraft.

Because of its long range and the Navy's need to have it take off and land, day and night, from an aircraft carrier, the X-47B has been designed to operate with far greater autonomy than the remotely piloted aircraft currently in use. [...]

A follow-on program - known as the Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System, or UCLASS - is expected to build on what was learned with the X-47B to produce operational aircraft.

An initial request for design proposals is expected to be issued by the Navy some time this month. Other aircraft makers, from Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co to General Atomics - are expected to compete to participate.


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